“Life-Now”: James Tiptree, Joanna Russ, and the Queer Meaning of Archives

In Brief:
Archives have special meaning for queer people, and there are fascinating parallels between queer and archival thought. The author draws on several sources to explore these ideas: a case study of archival correspondence between two queer science fiction writers who saw very different futures for their letters, Elizabeth Freeman’s concept of “queer time,” and a meditation on archives and chosen family.

By Isaac R. Fellman


Archivists, queer people, and science fiction writers have one substantial thing in common: they spend a good deal of time imagining the future. They may be profoundly pessimistic about that future. They may have been told that they don’t personally have one. Certainly they know that the universe to come is — in J.B.S. Haldane’s famous formulation — queerer than we can imagine. But they persist in exploring the possibilities of other eras, other lives.

The critic Elizabeth Freeman evokes some of these parallels in Time Binds, her 2016 examination of queer culture and its relationship to temporality. In one discussion of the formation of LGBTQIA+ canons, for example, she could easily be talking about archival collection development: since “we can’t know in advance […] what is queer and what is not, we gather and combine eclectically, dragging a bunch of cultural debris around us and staging it in idiosyncratic piles ‘not necessarily like any preexisting whole,’ though composed of what preexists.”1 As an archivist who is also queer2 , I recognize this imperative to imagine future needs without assuming too much. Here is the archivist’s perpetual struggle to make our organization legible to others. Here is our doggedness, our cultivation of taste, and our collage-like approach to history.

Here, furthermore, is a certain suggestion that archives have a special meaning to queer people – a fundamental rhyme with our condition, and a tendency to work in our interests. Although archives have been turned to many social purposes besides queer liberation, I believe that they are powerful tools for that liberation, for a range of reasons that include the short jump between archival philosophy and queer culture, as well as archives’ practical relevance to people who must look for places outside the nuclear family to safeguard their memory. In this article, I explore these ideas through a case study of two fascinating collections at the University of Oregon (UO): the papers of science fiction writers Joanna Russ (1937-2011) and James Tiptree, Jr. (1915-1987). Tiptree was a remarkable auto-archivist, among her other talents, and her correspondence with Russ explores and details her unique archival thought.

Russ and Tiptree

Russ and Tiptree’s papers were posthumously donated to UO. During their lives, they carried on a unique epistolary friendship, during which they argued, scolded, advised, agreed, came out along multiple vectors, and confessed their love. It appears, however, that telephone conversations were the closest they ever came to a meeting, unless we can count the shared fate of their letters.

Readers unfamiliar with James Tiptree will have noticed that I’ve referred to him by female pronouns. This is because he was the pseudonym of a female writer, Alice Sheldon. Before taking up Tiptree’s pen, Sheldon had already led a storied life: artist, Second World War spy, research psychologist, wife of a powerful CIA officer, and daughter of explorers. As Tiptree, she wrote lush, dark stories about gender and embodiment and biology; she also corresponded with many other authors and fans, taking on the persona of a traveled, world-weary man who shared every biographical detail with herself but one. It was in this persona that she met Joanna Russ, to whom she was eventually outed as a woman, and to whom she later came out as a lesbian.3

Russ, conversely, had been publicly lesbian almost from the beginning of their friendship. Like Tiptree, she was a sophisticated, highly literary writer identified with science fiction’s New Wave movement of the 1970s; she is best known today for her experimental novel The Female Man. She was a generation younger than Tiptree, and in their correspondence, Tiptree often admonishes or advises her – very often, as I shall discuss, on the subject of archives. But their story is also a love story, and in this, it was Russ who took the lead. In one letter, she frankly confessed that “I was in love with you when you were ‘James Tiptree, Jr’ and have been able to transfer that infatuation to Allie Sheldon, who is, after all, the same person.”4

Chosen Family, Queer Time

In opening a space just now for Russ and Tiptree’s personal stories, I’ve taken a moment to slip into what Freeman calls “queer time” – to “dwell in some other temporal regime,” as she puts it5 , or at least to dwell on a story that I personally find very moving. Queer time is a kind of alternate history that exists “within the lost moments of official history,” and which “generates a discontinuous history of its own.”6 One aspect of queer time is the temporal quirk of queer relationships, which don’t always map onto heterosexual models of what relationships look like. An inexperienced drag queen, for example, may be mentored by a “drag mother” who is only slightly older, or even a contemporary. This theme has strong connections to another concept close to Tiptree and Russ’ story: that of chosen family.

Chosen family is a crucial aspect of queer identity – an identity whose definition often begins with alternative models of attraction, but ultimately contains a whole political ecosystem composed mainly of blurred borders and fractured boundaries. Queerness is the place where society’s tectonic plates meet and grind together. And chosen family is the place where this geology becomes genealogy.7

Queer families form outside of the heterosexual construct of the nuclear family. They’re made up of friends, mentors, partners, exes, children, and others. Even a very conventional-looking queer family, say a same-sex couple with children living in the suburbs, is still chosen in a way that the heterosexual family across the street is not. The couple across the street chose each other, yes, but there was a default form in place for what would happen next. The queer family has no default form. It’s a multifaceted crystal that often grows into fantastic shapes.

I see Russ and Tiptree’s relationship through this crystal – first through one facet, then another. Were they lovers? Never quite. Were they mother and daughter? In a way; Tiptree was always advising Russ about things, expressing concern for Russ’ generation of women, and encouraging her to achieve her full potential. Yet Tiptree spoke initially as a father figure, not a mother, and Russ later acted as counselor during Tiptree’s coming-out.

“Sisters”? “Friends”? It’s pointless to ask. Tiptree wrote vigorously to Russ about her doubts in matters of gender – an early letter about her theory that the two genders are “men and mothers” nearly resulted in a falling-out. If she couldn’t be more precise, what hope has the reader to describe the way that the two of them were related? And yet it’s this very lack of precision that makes them a queer family.

In her discussion of Bertha Harris’ postmodern lesbian novel Lover, Freeman posits that the queer chosen family is not just disconnected from conventional relationships, but also “unbound from linear time.” She discusses the novel’s frontispiece, a “hand-drawn family tree of sorts” which sets out its characters’ connections – but “rather than situating characters above and below one another to indicate generations, this tree shows six fronds shooting out centrifugally from its center. The names of all the characters in the novel perch or hang from one frond or another, in no particular order. Furthermore, this genealogical kudzu ensnares Lover’s incidental characters, a few Catholic saints, pets mentioned in passing within the novel, and ‘a British bottle of vinegar.’”8

I see a powerful connection between this organized chaos of chosen family, the concept of “queer time,” and the archive. Archival systems may abound with metaphors of the nuclear family – in tools such as Archivist’s Toolkit and ArchivesSpace, we find “sibling,” “child,” and “parent” relationships, and we “spawn” new records from old – but the fact remains that archives are not nuclear families, any more than Russ and Tiptree were. They are protean information, facts that can be rendered in any order. Like the chosen family, they have an infinite number of forms. And their order is always “chosen.” Donors9 choose where to leave papers; repositories choose what to collect. As for “original order,” in practice it’s always up for interpretation. When the collections have been processed and placed on the shelves, their physical proximity is up to chance. Collections in juxtaposition don’t form nuclear families, but neighborhoods.10 Like the queer neighborhood, they’re places where powerful connections can form from proximity alone.

Let us come, then, to Russ and Tiptree’s letters, which through the UO library now share an address.

The Correspondence

From almost the beginning of their correspondence, Tiptree’s concerns are strikingly archival. Again and again, she urges Russ to observe some simple rules of preservation. She asks her to type on only one side of the page, and to keep carbon copies. Her thinking is partly practical: her eyesight is bad. But she is also demonstrating an archival mind, one that’s driven by the excitement of preserving the past for the sake of the future. One representative letter (undated, fall 1973) reads, “It isn’t just good phrases, what I mean you should save. It’s whole unrecapturable chunks of life-now. Yeah, you can be sure I’ll save them — but my effects will end up being burned in some charity ward, let us not kid. Do your researchers propose to look into the back wards of every VA hospital?”

Likewise, on September 25th, 1973, she cries out:

It is obvious since you write on both sides of the page that YOU DO NOT KEEP CARBONS. This is very wrong. This is a sin. Sin. Why? Because you are tossing off stuff like a fire-wheel, gems […] You think they will stay there, in your mind — please, human, take it from me they will NOT. They will change and evolve and shed themselves — or just ignominiously be forgotten. Letters in which you SAY anything should be part of your notebook. Then they will be there when you need them fresh and beating, not even because you’re a writer but because one of the most useful things a thinking person can have is his own past. I mean useful, not just elegiac.

Later letters continue this theme. On November 16th, 1973, she writes: “Again, your letter fires me with the urge to force Letterex upon you. […] Joanna, people like me make a nice note about sending stuff to Bowling Green University….and then never do it. Never quite.” On September 22nd, 1974: “Great letters as usual which I am now burdened down guarding. I accept the burden but tremble to think how I can fulfill it. (Does the Smithsonian take writers’ notebooks?)” And on November 27th, 1975: “I am saving all your letters in a notebook and will do my best to see they end up in Bowling Green. But are you sure you don’t want Xeroxes?”

I’ve quoted Tiptree at this length because I want to emphasize her archival philosophy. She’s doing many things in these exchanges: advising, admonishing, complimenting, flirting. But at the root of them is a fundamental faith in archives, a believe that when we let our words loose, we also lose part of ourselves. It doesn’t seem to occur to her – and if it does, she isn’t interested in exploring the idea – that Russ might not care whether anyone but Tiptree reads the letters, or might actively wish them to disappear into oblivion.11)

In fact, that apparently was her wish. On October 15th, 1973, Russ fired back: “Of course I never keep carbons. This is so that all my correspondents will feel guilty & will save my letters (as I save other people’s). Then 100 years from now stupid tho’ deserving scholars will clamber all about the world trying to piece together my correspondence & cussing under their breaths. (None of their business, anyhow.)”

Nonetheless, Tiptree remained committed to her own archival mission. Years later, after she was outed, she began to seriously contemplate archiving the letters she’d written and received during the Tiptree pseudonym’s heyday. She took steps to make the Bowling Green fantasy come true. On March 12, 1979, she writes to Russ with some ire:

Re this business of my shipping all of Tiptree’s life and papers to Bowling Green — NOBODY HAS READ YOUR LETTERS. Nobody is reading your letters, nobody will read your letters — in fact, at present, nobody can read your letters. Your letters to Tip (and me) are in closed binders, like everyone else’s, and all that can be read is your name on the spine of the binder(s).

To Tiptree, secrecy is as important as preservation. It’s possible for an archives to be both restricted and vital. To keep them in both conditions, she suggests a kind of HIPAA of the closet, or else a kind of citizen’s copyright.

The whole works, all my mss, notes, correspondence, even my stacks of fanzines, repose in some kind of order in sealed cartons in the basement of an honorable man in another city [Jeff Smith, who ultimately donated the papers to UO], identified only by number cued to a private list.

While she speaks seriously of her archival goals concerning preservation and privacy, she is flippant about the death of “Tiptree,” seeing herself as “his” literary executor:

You see, being dead, I decided to accede to Bowling Green’s request and do as I’d promised, ship everything to them, under seal, and then have each correspondent queried to assign a date on which their letters could be read. 10, 50, 100 years, whatever. The one thing I will not fo [sic] is burn them.

However, being not only dead but mad, I neglected to tell anyone about this, and simply left everything to Jeff[…]

After talking at greater length about privacy concerns, Tiptree adds:

The thing is, among all the mundane chitchat and personal trivia, my correspondents periodically emitted flashes or pages and paragraphs of brilliance and truth, and I will not destroy the kernels with the chaff. Moreover, the lot as a whole give a funny, perfectly complete complete [sic] picture of the whole ten years from birth to destruction, of a tiny little episode in [science fiction] history…Ideal grist for some post-fusion PhD’s green little paws.

Why did Tiptree, whose many careers somehow never touched on librarianship, spend so much time and energy thinking about archives? Her later years were marked by physical and mental illness; the process of putting together her collections could not have been easy. Part of it, I suspect, is bound up with a desire to tidy up a life which was drawing to a close – in the same year that she wrote the above-quoted letter to Russ, she also wrote her suicide note, keeping it on file until her actual death by suicide in 1987.

But I believe that Tiptree’s queer archival mindset went beyond similar practicality. However one wishes to speculate about her identity, it’s clear that she was quite queer. In the Wildean sense, she was always over-dressed and over-educated; her most famous photo shows an imposing, patrician butch who is also somehow wearing two pearl necklaces.

Tiptree, Jr portrait
James Tiptree, Jr. Photo courtesy University of Oregon.
Larger version of same image

It’s an inescapably campy image, bringing up Freeman’s description of camp as “a mode of archiving, in that it lovingly, sadistically, even masochistically brings back dominant culture’s junk and displays the performer’s fierce attachment to it.”12 The color-coding, the painstaking choice of repository, the binders – a powerful word for later generations of female-assigned gender rebels – all speak of a powerful attachment to such “junk.” And it brings up Valerie Rohy’s observation that there’s a strong connection between queerness and a desire for organization, research, knowledge: “it should be no surprise that queers are liable to an intense library cathexis. What sort of people, after all, must research who they are?13

I am confident that Tiptree understood the archives as the ideal resting place for her memory. Queer people are prone to losing their biological families. Historically, we have sometimes been forced to undergo sterilization; today, we still risk barriers to reproduction, and sometimes find ourselves unable to remain connected to our families of origin. The nuclear family’s guarantee of memory, the proverbial list of names in the family Bible, is at times closed to us. Certainly it was closed to Tiptree, who left no biological children. But she did leave chosen family, and chosen family merges naturally into the archive.


Verne Harris, in his essay on the French feminist philosopher Helene Cixous, applies her ideas to archives this way: “The full meanings and significances at play within any part of a storehouse’s content are indeterminable. For its content is an ever-shifting swirl of recording and imagining, of narrativizing and fictionalizing.”14 Queer identity, with its place at culture’s edges, is similarly liminal and complex; archives may seem set and final once placed on their shelves, but there is a streak of queerness engrained in the form itself, in the shifting meanings Harris describes. I am again reminded of Rohy, who remarks of Alison Bechdel’s very archival graphic novel Fun Home, “perhaps this [book] is what queer genealogy looks like: not the accidental genetic relation of lesbian daughter to bisexual father but the strands of identification and disidentification — gendered, literary, aesthetic, archival — that engage the two in an endless conversation.”15

“An endless conversation”: a remarkable afterlife for two passionate people who, in the end, had to build their relationship solely on talk. In becoming archival subjects, Russ and Tiptree have slipped into queer time for good.


Thanks to Jeff Smith for granting me permission to quote from the Tiptree letters, Madelyn Arnold for granting permission to quote Russ’ replies, and Patti Perret for allowing me to reproduce her photograph.

My mentor Steve Duckworth encouraged me to write this paper and was its first editor; I owe him a great debt. Perri Parise arranged for me to get MLS credit for researching and writing an early draft. Lynne Stahl gave me all the right advice and recommended key readings, including Time Binds. At the University of Oregon library, Linda Long showed me what archival reference ought to look like, and also gave me much-needed copyright guidance. At Lead Pipe, publishing editor Ian Beilin repeatedly saved me from myself, and Alexis Lothian and Ryan Randall provided a brilliant and deeply considered peer review. Lastly, the members of WisCon 42 created the perfect environment for me to write the last major draft of this paper: nurturing, adventurous, and a place where everyone’s heard of James Tiptree, Jr.


Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Kindle edition.

Harris, Verne. “Insistering Derrida: Cixous, Deconstruction, and the Work of Archive.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 2 (2017): 1-19. Accessed November 9, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.24242/jclis.v1i2.28

Phillips, Julie. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: Picador, 2007.

Rohy, Valerie. “In the Queer Archive: Fun Home.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16, no. 3 (2010): 341-361. 10.1215/10642684-2009-03

Weston, Kath. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Joanna Russ Papers, Coll 261, Box 10, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.

Alice B. Sheldon, pen name James Tiptree, Jr., Papers, Coll 455, Boxes 74 and 120, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.

  1. loc 122. The quotation is from Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” []
  2. I use the term in the popular as well as the academic sense: an identity that’s both personal and political, and that can’t be separated from the kinship I feel with other queer people. []
  3. Although this is a typical capsule biography of Tiptree, there’s one respect in which I’m personally unsure of its accuracy. Namely, had she been born a hundred years later, would Tiptree have identified with a different gender than that assigned to her at birth? There is much in Julie Philips’ excellent biography to suggest so, from early diary entries that declare “I am no damned woman[;] wasteful god not to have made me a man” (p. 99) to a later discussion of her choice to undergo a breast reduction in middle age, whose rather tortured justification was that “boyish clothes look younger, or healthier, because they contrast a woman’s features with a man’s, rather than with a girl’s. In a clean white shirt I still look like a perverse young boy, and this is about my best effect, from the standpoint of attraction” (p. 195-196). This, combined with her masculine pseudonym and the great difficulty she experienced in writing without it, makes me worry that by calling “her” “Alice Sheldon,” I am in fact misgendering and deadnaming this writer. However, “she/her” were the pronouns she used in life, and so I will use them here. As for the name, “Tiptree” remains the convention used in the science fiction field, and so it is easy for me to default on “Tiptree,” which I suspect is ultimately more accurate than “Sheldon.” []
  4. Russ to Tiptree, 25 July 1977 []
  5. loc 54 []
  6. loc 66 []
  7. Or, as Kath Weston puts it in loc 217 of Families We Choose: “Familial ties between persons of the same sex that may be erotic but are not grounded in biology or procreation do not fit any tidy division of kinship into relations of blood and marriage […] Lesbian and gay relationships seem to cut across [the] categories of law and nature.” []
  8. loc 1088. I am duty bound here to point out that the name “James Tiptree” derives from a brand of British marmalade. []
  9. My friend, the queer scholar Lynne Stahl, points out that this word has enormous resonance in a discussion of queer reproduction. (Document comment to author, May 20, 2018.) []
  10. I warmly credit Brenda Marston, archivist at the Cornell Human Sexuality Collection, for the image of the archival neighborhood. (Email message to author, November 10, 2017.) []
  11. Another remark from Stahl: “To queer the notion this paragraph articulates further, I wonder if it’s helpful to consider preservation as reproduction/the making of queer family. While the letters were not public artifacts at the time, Tiptree seems to be presuming that they someday will be — her and Russ’s offspring or parthenogenetic heirs or something along those lines? Their immortal future, at any rate.” (Document comment to author, May 30, 2018.) To this, peer reviewer Alexis Lothian adds: “Maybe Russ’s uncaring is a different kind of queerness, one that is uninterested in reproduction or seeks a more immaterial version of it – as seen in Jose Munoz’s ‘Ephemera as Evidence.’” (Document comment to author, June 20, 2018.) See also Lothian’s own “Archival Anarchies,” which is highly recommended. []
  12. Loc 1679 []
  13. P. 355 []
  14. p. 6 []
  15. p. 349 []